Updated: Dec 6, 2019
Too many people suffer in silence, too many are afraid and do not seek treatment and too many die because of stigma associated with a mental illness. As a health law/healthcare attorney, particularly in my work over the last four years, I have encountered many individuals with powerful stories, often facing difficult challenges and struggle daily to maintain stability and wellness due to a mental illness.
Mental illness is a disease that does not discriminate, whether you are rich or poor, black or white, young or older, educated or non-educated, republican or democrat, anyone can suffer from a mental illness, just as any other disease (e.g. diabetes or cancer). However, unlike cancer or diabetes, there’s still a lot of stigma associated with mental illness which often creates barriers and deter people from seeking help and treatment, before decompensating and eventually some requiring in-patient hospital treatment and care for stabilization.
In this New Year, I want to encourage all of us to do our part in helping to remove stigma associated with mental illness and treatment. Seeking help and treatment is one of the bravest thing a person suffering from a mental illness can do, particularly given the fact that most mental illnesses often impairs the insight of the individual into his or her mental illness. My perspective (though I am not a clinician), is that the lack of insight is probably most challenging for professionals because it can be difficult to convince someone to seek and remain in treatment, when he or she truly believes that nothing is wrong.
In a perfect world, there would be no stigma in seeking treatment including therapy, counseling, psychotropic medications (.e.g. anti-psychotic and mood stabilizers), ECT and whatever treatment regimen a professional recommends in order to maintain stability and live a more healthy/productive lifestyle. After all, is there stigma for seeking treatment for cancer, high blood pressure or any other physical ailments or diseases? Why should mental illness be any different?
In my experience, I have come across individuals who are smart, with successful careers, financial success, admired by peers, loved by family/friends etc. and unfortunately some lose everything due to this terrible disease. In worst case scenario, some even engage in risky behaviors, including self-injurious behaviors and suicide. This is a tragedy, and as a society I believe we should be doing more. I am proud of the work I have done in the last four (4) years in support of a stigma free world and advocating for Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) for those at risk in the community. AOT is governed by section 9.60 of the Mental Hygiene Law. Briefly, the law was enacted in 1999 by the New York State legislature, amending the Mental Hygiene Law to provide for the establishment of court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment. (See Chapter 408 of the Laws of 1999.) The legislature, in enacting the law, found that “there are mentally ill persons who are capable of living in the community with the help of family, friends and mental health professionals, but who, without such assistance, will relapse and require long periods of hospitalization.” AOT is just one small component to promoting better health, wellness and stability for so many suffering from mental illness in our communities.
Last year, I also completed the Mental Health First Aide Training and encourage anyone who’s interested in learning more about the different types of mental illnesses, the signs and symptoms and how to offer first-aid to someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge, until professional help arrives on the scene, to register and take this training. (See www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org to find a Mental Health First Aid course near you. Many suffer from a mental illness directly but nearly all of us know and/or love someone suffering from a mental illness or will come across someone experiencing a mental health challenge in our daily activities (friend, family member, co-worker or stranger) and the training can assists you in knowing how to offer help to that person.
Over the past few years, I have also developed tremendous compassion and respect for all the supportive families who continue to support their loved ones in this difficult fight (they are often invisible and left out of broader conversations on mental health)—the families who visits their loved ones in the psychiatric units, spend long hours in the hospital ER, CPEP waiting rooms, attend court hearings, visit in the correctional jail facilities, accompany loved ones to MD appointments, therapy and psychiatrist appointments, remind loved ones to take their medications, all those family members are heroes in my eyes because I know it must not be easy and sometimes they don’t even get so much of a thank you or appreciation for their sacrifices. I feel it’s bitter-sweet that I am now moving on from this very important work because so much more work needs to be done in this area of public health and a lot more resources needed in our communities (e.g., better health insurance coverage, more supportive housing, more day/group treatment programs, alcohol/drug treatment services and more job opportunities for those in recovery and remission seeking to regain confidence and self-worth etc.).
Again, can’t emphasize enough that more work is also needed to eliminate the stigma in seeking treatment. The average person, who is going through a difficult time also should feel comfortable reaching out to and speaking to a professional and maybe seek counseling and get help rather than maybe self-medicating and engaging in alcohol/drug misuse and other self-injurious behaviors. No one should be labeled and called names simply for seeking treatment. See this article on NAMI’s website to learn some of the ways you can help to eliminate mental health stigma.